Come Eat – or – Love and Forgiveness in my Immigrant Family

I sent this picture to my mother. I texted it to her. She’s learned by now that I’m not on WeChat, so she texts me back. She responds with a “haha” – enough for me to know she understands. Then a longer message in Chinese – something about her day.

In my mother’s family, “come eat” is not just an apology; it’s a means of reconciliation. To my mother, a meal is worth a thousand words.

I grew up in a world of words, but neither my mother nor I learned to speak the other’s language with fluency. Apologies aren’t easy when the only way I know how to say “I’m sorry” in her language loosely translates to, “It’s a wrong that can’t be righted.”

Once, as a teenager, I apologized for something I’d done wrong. My mother continued to ignore me for hours until I asked what more she wanted; I’d already apologized.

“I never asked you to apologize,” she replied.

Food will always mean reconciliation to me. If there are three mushrooms left on a plate, she’ll put two on mine and one on hers. If there are two mushrooms left, she’ll put two on mine.

She never did apologize for forgoing my wedding. But I never asked her to. Half a year after the wedding, she invited Zora and me to Thanksgiving dinner. “Come eat.”

I’ve learned from almost 30 years of being queer in a multicultural family that the ways in which we express love and affirmation, and the ways in which we accept them, can be so much more complicated than our ideals.

And I’ve learned that, if I wait for the fulfillment of my ideals, I’ll miss out on the earnest love along the way. I’m aware that most would not call my mother an ally. Some might say that hers is an insufficient love. And yet, what do you call a love that breaches barriers and persists despite baffling misunderstanding and hurt? What do you call a humbling desire to remain in relationship, even when your community forsakes you?

I call it Christ-like.

“You know, the Chinese always say that in old age, you’ll want to move back in with your daughter,” she said last week. I don’t know if the Chinese really say that, or which Chinese people she’s talking about, but I accept it as a mark of deepening love and trust for her to say, in her own round-about way, that she would be happy to uproot again and move in with my wife and me halfway across the country in a cold, foreign land.

Recently, a discussion about the ideals vs. the practice of love and allyship for LGBTQ people came about in one corner of the LGBTQ Christian world: cis-het Christian LGBTQ ally B.T. Harmon launched a series of blog posts on Q Christian’s platform, and it prompted a fair and spirited response from Friar Shay and Brian Murphy of Queer Theology.

B.T. Harmon seemed to insinuate to parents that they did not have to let go of their non-affirming Christian theology to love their LGBTQ children. Queer Theology struck back with insistence that any love lacking affirmation is not truly love.

I don’t believe that either are wrong; both are right, and I suspect most of us know that the truth is not “somewhere in the middle,” but both at the same time. One at times more than the other.

In the work I do (I work in faith-based LGBTQ advocacy), I’m frequently pushed from side to side by those who want to draw the circle wider and those who insist on the highest standards for allyship and justice. Each impetus is of Christ. There are LGBTQ people on each side of the see-saw, and there are earnest cis-het allies on each side, too. Right now, some want to celebrate part-way strides made for justice. Some want to push the “center” into greater ideological purity.

So it often goes in the ways in which we speak about justice and inclusion: the Church, we believe and rightfully so, should be held to the highest standards. And yet the practice of reconciliation, of justice-seeking, is more like a spade than a scalpel.

In the end, the spat between Q Christian and Queer Theology is a conversation between white men who, history has shown, do not have the best corporate track record for conflict management. In the world of LGBTQ-affirming Christianity, the pressure to say the right words, to strike the right chord, to titrate just the right amount of outrage with empathy or remembrance with forgiveness is enormous. (And it should be – words mean something, thank God.)

But there are other ways to bring together the seams of humanity that don’t rely on the perfectly crafted apology, and we’ve done this in a rainbow of ways throughout time. I learned one such way from my mother, who learned it from her mother, who learned it from her mother and her mother before – to labor over the fire, dream a feast, set the table, and call to the scattered: “Come eat.”

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